by Beth S. Buxbaum
Living on both the East and West Coast, Karen and John McDonagh have lived in several homes during the last two decades, but they never really felt at home until they moved into their early 19th-century home in Yardley in October of 2007. “This house was the first house I looked at online,” says Karen. She knew immediately that there was something special about this historic homestead. “Once I saw this house, everything was compared to this.”
As a marketing executive with Johnson and Johnson, John has been transferred several times in the last few decades. They never stayed in any home for more than three years. Karen and John, who both grew up in Southtown in Long Island, lived in Newtown and Holland, Bucks County in the 1990s. Then John was transferred to California. With the news of another move, now from California back to Pennsylvania, Karen began her house search online. Since they had lived in Bucks County, they chose to return to the area. “We wanted to raise our two children here, who were then 13 and 9.
When Karen came to look at the house firsthand, she did have a few “musts” on the list of desired amenities. She wanted, for example, a small private yard and a pool, like she had in California. In addition to the essential yard and pool, the house also offered a porch and fireplace. “I have wanted a porch all my life,” Karen admits. So, discovering these amazing features, Karen and John were convinced this was the house. “I looked at every single house on the market in the area,” Karen recounts, “and came back to this one and said this is it.” But they do admit that they were a bit apprehensive because of the age of the house. What was also interesting was that they didn’t realize how old the house was when they first looked at it. It was well maintained and structurally sound. They were informed that the windows were recently replaced, the pool was restored and it had a good roof. Mainly needing some cosmetic work, they painted several rooms and it was ready for them to move in. Karen and John were excited, not only were they moving back to Bucks County, but they had found themselves a charming, historic house. “From every angle of the house there was something special,” exclaims Karen.
As the next owners of this centuries-old property, they were curious about the house’s history. After digging up deeds and other documents, they uncovered a few essential bits of information about their new home. There are varying dates on when the house was built, but most accounts find the house to have been built in the early 1800s. Referred to in historic accounts as the Hough House, it was built by Henry Hough on land bought by Richard Hough in 1683 with a land grant from William Penn. Records state that it was the last piece of the original grant from William Penn owned by the Hough family, known to be one of Lower Makefield’s first families. It is noted in one account that the family also built Twin Arches and the historic stone house at the Lower Makefield Shopping Center, which are both still standing today.
Records indicate that the original Hough House was built as a tenant house. The structure was built very simply, with low ceilings and a lack of embellishments that were typically found in Bucks County manor homes. One account indicates that in the early 1900s the area was mainly pasture and the house was part of a working dairy farm. The structure’s original section, built in the early 1800s, included a large room with a cooking fireplace on the first floor and two small chambers on the second floor. The first floor room, which is now the kitchen, has the original fireplace, a leaded window and winding stairs to the second floor.
A deed that John found showed that Henry sold the property to Amos Thackera and, subsequently, Thackera sold the property to Henry’s son, Charles, in 1840. Documents state that in the mid-19th century Charles enlarged the house and added a gambrel roof over four Doric columns, giving the house a Greek revival appearance. Accounts reveal that Charles Hough remained in the house until his death in 1888 and his unmarried daughter, Elizabeth, lived in the house until she died in 1900. What is known is that the estate passed out of the Hough family in 1906. But the Hough family history is a notable chapter in the area’s past.
John shared a collection of documents that had information about their house and the surrounding area. The Hough House, and the homesteads in the surrounding area, were listed on the National Register of Historic Places and known as Edgewood Village. As the records explain this historic village did change names many times over the years. On maps dating 1858 and 1876, this area was listed with a post office designation of Edgewood and the name was eventually accepted by the National Register in 1979. The Hough House is one indicated on the map surrounded by 18 other structures, including a record of a blacksmith, a country store, a tailor shop and a tavern. Markers on a map of historic Edgewood Village identify buildings as Presbyterian Manse, Presbyterian Chapel, Grange Hall, Berrell’s Store, Biles Corner, Heston Hall, several Heacock tenant houses and a grouping of private houses. In addition, this record describes the configuration of road passages in this area, explaining that the two main roads were the stagecoach road from Philadelphia to the Yardley Ferry (Yardley-Langhorne
Road) and the access road from the Delaware River to the county seat at Newtown (Stony Hill Road). On this street map the Hough House sits alone, down from the major crossroad, where the more populated section of the village is depicted.
The Hough House has had several expansions since its original construction in the early 1800s. Between 1933 and 1947 a living room wing and garage were built symmetrically to balance the exterior. In addition, the second floor was expanded and a center stair was built. With this expansion the rambling front porch was created, reaching across the full length of the house and adding an inviting feel to the property. The next renovation was done by Buzz and Betty Meade, who purchased the property in 1972.
In 1981, the Meades renovated the kitchen and had a brick-floored addition done, which the McDonaghs refer to as the sunroom. During this renovation, the original cooking fireplace was discovered buried behind a wall in the kitchen. It is noted that when the fireplace was uncovered the owners were surprised to see the cut quarry stone, which they later confirmed came from a working quarry that was situated along the canal. Also intact with the fireplace discovery were the original wrought iron crane and hooks. The fireplace, that needed no restoration upon its discovery, is still in working condition today and is one of the focal points of the kitchen.
The kitchen is the only major renovation done on the house by the McDonaghs. Karen explains that even though the kitchen had been redone in a 1981 renovation, which they describe as quaint but inefficient. They wanted a more functional, gathering-friendly space. In 2009 they re-did the kitchen collaborating with Bruce Roth, of Sycamore Kitchens in Newtown. Karen and John wanted to recreate the space to have a cozy, informal feel with an efficient and functional flow. They also wanted to incorporate several of the original elements of the house, like the fireplace and original leaded windows. Karen and John shared their vision, as well as a picture they found in a magazine, with Bruce.
“We started with a concept and fine tuned it as we continued to create the design,” Bruce explains, “having several focal points.” First was the center space. He describes that they removed a small bar, part of the 1981 renovation that took up a large amount of space without much function. “We designed a large L-shaped, two-level center island where they could all sit, enjoy informal meals and entertain,” he adds, “and also be functional with the stove on one side and a veggie sink on the lower level for prep work.” The center island has a granite top and cherry wood base. All the cabinetry is antique white and the counter tops are granite. Bruce also bumped out the sink and added spindled legs to give it more visual interest. Another focal point was the leaded window over the sink, original to the house. Here Bruce created an arched design in the cabinetry around the window to bring attention to that space, while complimenting an arched mirror on one dining room wall and also the two arched entrances flanking that center wall that go into the living room. All these details created a flow from room to room and from focal point to focal point.
Creating a flowing, functional living space was also the focus of how Karen furnished the interior. All the rooms have a cozy ambiance, minimally filled and accented. One challenge was how to incorporate many of the pieces from their last home on the East Bay of San Francisco, which was much larger with 10-foot ceilings. This house was such a departure from their last in so many ways. “Everything was tall and big from the Livermore house,” Karen explains, “so we ended up getting rid of a lot of the furniture.” Cozy and comfortable was the goal. “I wanted everything to blend,” adds Karen, “with each room having its own character.” A favorite spot is the newer addition, with its brick floor, wall of built-in cabinets and shelves and expansive French doors leading out to the back patio and pool. As the days get warmer, Karen and John are spending a lot more time outdoors. If not lounging on the front porch sipping a cool drink, they are enjoying their beautifully landscaped grounds and pool, shaded by the towering branches of the huge white ash.
Beth S. Buxbaum is a freelance writer from the Philadelphia area.